Sing or Swim

Okay, so most of you won’t know that I always wanted to be in musicals, possibly ever since, on the brick of becoming a teenager, in 1971 I saw Ken Russell’s film The Boyfriend, starring Twiggy. I went to the local ABC, around the corner from where I grew up. I saw it several times and each time my heart sang a little more.

There’s a lot of tap dancing in it, and, much to the annoyance of my parents, I took my brown school shoes into the shoe repair shop and asked them to put taps on the heels and toes. They weren’t real taps, not the kind of taps proper tap dancers wore, but the kind people had nailed on to make their shoes last longer. It didn’t matter to me, I could shuffle ball change and make the sound I wanted. I could be Twiggy in my knee-high socks and school uniform. I could dance on our conservatory floor (cold, more like a greenhouse). Of course I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and my version of shuffle ball change was decidedly different to the real thing, but I was happy, and so my love of musicals grew.

At that time, I’d been at my secondary modern for a year or so, I was the odd one out, shared my theatrical interests with a few. I auditioned for the National Youth Theatre, got a recall, never got in. I can still remember the audition, and the audition piece from a Noel Coward play called Come into the Garden Maud. Don’t ask. I never imagined that years and years later I would write a play for the NYT. While my school friends used to go to clubs (or discos as they were called then), I would be taking the number 13 bus into the West End, seeing just about every show I could, musicals, plays, the theatre stole my heart. I was hungry for it, saw everything, spent all my pocket money, birthday money and later on, work money, on bus tickets and the cheapest theatre seats. Not so cheap anymore.

Moving forward several years, my love of musicals never waned. I saw originals in London and on Broadway of A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Dreamgirls, Chicago, Billy, Sweeney Todd, Little Shop of Horrors and so many more. I saw everything I could, sometimes twice. I saw the RSC’s Once in a Lifetime about fifteen times. I would sit high up in the cheaper seats, imagine myself down on that stage, in a spotlight, singing and dancing (not so much of the latter) and compelling the audience to want more. I would get awards for my work, I would sign my name for fans at the stage door, just as I had stood, for hours sometimes, to queue and squeal when Rock Hudson and Lee Remick signed my little yellow autograph book.

Of course those ambitions never happened. I went to drama school, auditioned for a few shows, but I wasn’t good enough. There were so many others who had it all, who shone, who lit the stage and sang out, in a way I never could. And it’s fine, really, it’s okay, because often life doesn’t work out the way we expect it to, and what presents itself may sometimes be something we could never have imagined. I never imagined I could be a writer.

Last night I went to see Mack and Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse. I know it well, I know the music, the songs, the lyrics practically by heart, but I had never seen it. I haven’t seen an old fashioned musical for some years, and last night, in that incredible space, I was reminded of my early years and my ambition. The music, the cast, the lights, the clothes made me smile the whole way through. I had to put my hand over my mouth so I didn’t sing out loud, and just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did, and I cried.

Some playwrights I know dislike musicals, in the same way some literary novelists don’t rate commercial fiction. I say there is nothing wrong with commercial, feel-good work, there is nothing wrong with singing and dancing and being happy without having to analyse every word and intention. Then again, Mack and Mabel does have much to say about celebrity and women and their place in the movies, when the silent films gave way to the talkies, women still had no voice. And it doesn’t exactly have a Hollywood ending.

I digress. You’ll have to go and see it for yourself, watch the superb and astonishing cast. There’s tap-dancing too, glorious tap dancing on an uneven concrete floor. They’ve put in an extra matinee on Tuesday 21st August. I might go again.

Sometimes, often, we don’t get what we want in life. I didn’t get to stand in front of an audience in the way I wanted to, I do get audiences, radio audiences who I never see and who never see me, and theatre audiences who I sit behind and watch and only interact with when we do after-show talks, and that is good enough. The other thing I never counted on was becoming a competent swimmer, loving it, loving the water, the chlorine (okay, I admit, I don’t love the chlorine), having found something later in life that I can do, that I am good at, that I have stuck with and progressed at. I’ve been five days in a row, I have lost half a stone, by Sat I will have been swimming for an entire week. I can now call myself a swimmer. Three years ago I couldn’t. It absorbs me in the same way musicals do, except I have to do all the hard work and there is no applause for me. It makes me happy, it makes me feel good. It probably costs as much as those cheap, upper circle seats I used to buy when I was a young girl. But I have found something new that I love.

Sitting in that theatre last night made me happy and sad. Sad because it made me think of the things we aim for, work towards, many of which never happen. It made me happy because, in swimming, I have found something new, something I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would like, let alone do quite well. And now that I have cast aside any ambitions to be in musicals – though I would still very much like to write one or two – I harbour secret ambitions to be an Olympian, to win gold, though I’d be content with bronze, to be honoured, to swim for my country. Of course I know it is NEVER going to happen because I am too old and not good enough, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do it, every day if I want, get in that pool and have people watch me. I watch other people, I am sure they watch the woman in black, with a bright pink swimming cap and Keifer goggles, who thinks she is fifteen but knows she is a lot older and a little wiser. It’s okay to have the surprises, the ones you don’t expect and then be good at them. Writing was a surprise, but I have to earn a living from that, swimming was a bigger surprise, it is my joy, the place I go where no one and nothing can disturb me.

I might transfer the music from Mack and Mabel onto my underwater MP3 player and dream while I swim, of what might have been, and what is. And I can live with that very happily.

3 thoughts on “Sing or Swim

  1. Hurrah – Three cheers for the smashing swimming singing Silas lady xxxx I heart musicals too, especially musical comedies – amongst my favourites are Carousel, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on The Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar ….

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